‘It may never happen’: The $88 billion gamble on the Afghan army that’s going up in smoke

The United States spent more than $88 billion to train and equip Afghanistan’s army and police, nearly two-thirds of all of its foreign aid to the country since 2002. So why are they crumbling in the face of the Taliban onslaught?

The breathtaking failure to mold a cohesive and independent Afghan fighting force can be traced to years of overly optimistic assessments from U.S. officials that obscured — and in some cases, purposely hid — evidence of deep-rooted corruption, low morale, and even “ghost soldiers and police” who existed merely on the payrolls of the Afghan Defense and Interior Ministries, according to current and former officials directly involved in the training effort.

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Even the Afghan units who have fought valiantly in the face of a formidable enemy, suffering enormous casualties in the process, were never expected to operate without high-tech air and ground support from foreign allies, they say.

“How do we get the Afghans to fight for themselves? It may never happen,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a retired Army lieutenant colonel and member of the Armed Services Committee who opposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Ernst, who reviewed the training on several occasions, said the Americans in charge “were optimistic.”

“The special operations were really doing quite well,” she said in an interview. “But that’s always when they had Americans advising and assisting them.”

Sen. Jonie Ernst (R-Iowa) speaks to reporters after a Republican Senate luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Building on June 15
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

In recent days, the country’s second- and third-largest cities, Ghazni and Herat, have fallen to the Taliban. On Friday, Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, was also in the militant movement’s control. There are now growing doubts among military officials that Afghan units assigned to defend Kabul will fare much better and Washington and its allies are anticipating the Taliban could soon be at the gates of the capital.

The Pentagon insisted it is not counting them out yet, even as 3,000 American troops are flowing into Kabul to evacuate U.S. diplomats, who were instructed Friday to destroy sensitive government documents before fleeing for their safety.

“We want to see the will and the political leadership, the military leadership, that’s required in the field,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Friday. “We still want to see that, and we hope to see that, but whether it happens or not, whether it pans out or not, that’s really for the Afghans to decide.”

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